AP reporter Matt Lee pressed State Department spokesperson Marie Harf as to why the agency has reversed its stance on the credibility of the UN report indicating chemical weapons were used in Damascus on August 21 Thursday in the State Department press conference.
Harf said circumstances since the week after August 21 have "changed" and at the time U.S. intelligence agencies were not sure if any evidence of chemical weapons would survive the persistent shelling of Damascus by the Assad regime:
Q: Marie, I was going to try to ask the secretary this myself but Andrea beat me to it.
MS. HARF: But you'll take me next.
Q: (Laughs.) Yes. So anyway, these are — the first two questions that — first couple questions I wanted to ask to him: One, why did he feel the need or why did the administration feel the need to come down — to have him give a statement in full defense or full support of the U.N. finding?
Was this based — was this because of the allegations made by President Putin and President Assad in various interviews over the last couple days?
And secondly, does the administration believe that the U.N. report in itself, by itself, absent your own intelligence findings, is enough to justify the credible use, threat — credible threat of force against the Assad regime?
MS. HARF: Well, on the first question, it's not in response to anything specific. I think the secretary wanted to make clear some key points about the U.N. report, which came out earlier this week, which we had a little chance to talk about, but he believes was very important to highlight, particularly give the ongoing Security Council negotiations and also, of course, heading into UNGA. So we thought it was an important time diplomatically for him to make a strong statement about what the U.N. report showed. The U.N.'s already spoken to it, but of course the secretary wanted to speak to it as well.
On the second question, it's a hypothetical that quite frankly just doesn't exist. We think that our intelligence case that we've laid out is a very strong one. We have high confidence in it. That — and we've declassified an unprecedented amount of information with that report. So that intelligence case coupled with, as you heard the secretary say, the U.N. report, presents a picture of exactly what happened on the 21st.
Q: Right. But do you think that the U.N. report, in and of itself, is enough to justify the administration's stance with threatening the use of force?
MS. HARF: Well, we're certainly not justifying our policy based on any one report. We are — we've developed a policy, based on our own intelligence case, on our national security interests. And the U.N. report, as you heard the secretary say, plays an important role in that.
Q: The reason that I'm asking — the reason I'm so interested in this is because it — I don't really get it because you spent the entire — the administration spent the entire last week of August badmouthing this report, saying it couldn't achieve anything, and now all of a sudden it seems to be — you know, you think it's the bee's knees.
You know —
MS. HARF: I like your characterization — (inaudible) — Matt.
Q: On August 27th: We've reached a point now where we believe too much time has passed for the investigation to be credible. We believe too long of a time has passed for them to be — for it to be credible.
We believe that — August 28th: We believe that it's too late for the U.N. inspection to be credible. Again on August 28th: We believe the U.N. inspection has passed the point where it can be credible. And again I'm going to repeat, let's be clear, they cannot determine, by mandate, culpability; they can only determine whether a chemical weapons attack happened.
That was you, speaking in this room –
MS. HARF: I recognize — I recognize those words.
Q: Good. But —
MS. HARF: Is there a question?
Q: Yeah. What happened? Why is this now the bible —
MS. HARF: A couple points.
Q: Why is this the gold standard, when you spent those two days at least, and others did as well, just trashing the whole idea? It certainly sounds as though — or looks as though you didn't like it when you didn't know what it was going to say, but now —
MS. HARF: Absolutely not, Matt.
Q: OK. Then explain to me how it is —
MS. HARF: I would love to.
Q: — that it's now credible, when too much time had passed for it to be incredible, or uncredible.
MS. HARF: So let's just take a step back and make a couple points. First, the point on culpability remains. The U.N. report does not by itself determine culpability. That's not its mandate.
Q: Right, well, except that the president said that it confirmed that the Assad regime carried out the attack.
MS. HARF: It confirmed. So what is included in the U.N. report? And then he went and laid out all of the reasons why it did. But he — we're all clear that it doesn't assign blame or culpability. That hasn't changed.
What we said at the time — and I said a lot of things on those two days about the U.N. report, so let's walk back through some of the other quotes I said — that we didn't want the regime to use this as a stalling tactic. That at that time that I made those comments, they were shelling the area. The safety situation on the ground just wasn't good for the U.N. inspectors, and at that point we weren't sure that we could go forward with the inspection and get a report from it.
They were able to continue their work, and they came back with a report that we find to be very credible. So obviously, we respond to the situation as it exists on the ground that day.
The broader point was that we didn't want the regime to use this as a stalling tactic, and every day we went by where they continued to shell and the inspectors couldn't get on the ground, which were some of those days that you mentioned, was a day too long for us, in our opinion. We took a look at the report when it came in, and we believe that it's credible. Those things are in no way inconsistent.
Q: So the reason that you said that it wasn't credible at the — or wouldn't be credible was because too much time had passed between the actual attack —
MS. HARF: Well, you're cherry-picking parts of quotes. We said that they had been shelling, that they were refusing to allow inspectors in. The secretary mentioned — let me finish, Matt, and then you can follow up with me. The secretary mentioned the interviews they had done, which actually wasn't related to what — you know, collecting evidence on the ground. They were able to do interviews with survivors, with people that had treated the wounded, and they were able to get information that way as well. They were also later able to analyze some of the things he talked about in terms of scientific evidence.
So we are where we are today. We have a report that we believe is credible and only backs up everything we've been saying about our intelligence case since the beginning.
Q: Well, I just don't understand how you can say on August 28th, we believe it's too late for the U.N. inspection to be credible, and now to say, on September 19th, that it is credible, because nothing changed in that — the time — the time between —
MS. HARF: Everything has actually changed in that time period, Matt. We've talked about in this room — a lot has changed on this issue.
Q: — the time — the time between the 21st, when the attack happened, and when the inspectors got in and started to do their jobs has not gotten shorter. It's still —
MS. HARF: But that was in the broader context —
Q: It was — if it was too late on August 28th, then it's too late on September 19th.
MS. HARF: The broader context, Matt, matters here, that what we saw was shelling and destruction, systematic destruction of evidence, and that at that point we weren't sure if the inspectors were going to get access to any usable intelligence.
Q: Hold on a second. You weren't sure? No, you said that they wouldn't.
You said that it's too late for the investigation —
MS. HARF: I'm not going to parse words from two weeks ago, Matt. I'm just not going to go down this road for 15 minutes with you.
Q: All right.
MS. HARF: We were at a point then when it was unclear what kind of access the inspectors would get, when it was unclear it there was any way they would get credible evidence.
Q: When it was unclear what the report would say —
MS. HARF: Not —
Q: — when you weren't sure that it would agree with what your findings were —
MS. HARF: In no way is that the case.
Q: — you thought that it was not credible. That's —
MS. HARF: That is — in no way is that the case. We were confident from the beginning in our intelligence assessment about what happened here on the 21st. We in no way thought that the U.N. report would say that sarin wasn't used. Again, this is just a question about whether chemical weapons were used, which, to be frank, since August 21st, there hasn't been doubt in people's minds about whether chemical weapons were used here. So we never thought that the U.N. report would miraculously say chemical weapons weren't used here. So that's an assumption that has no basis in fact.